Or not. Eh, even if not, I'm still digging this story a lot.
Could alien life exist in the form of DNA-shaped dust?
* 18:09 10 August 2007
"This came as a bit of a surprise to us", says Gregor Morfill of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. He and colleagues have built a computer simulation to model what happens to dust immersed in an ionised gas, or plasma.
The dust grains pick up a negative charge by absorbing electrons from the plasma and then this charged 'nucleus' attracts positive ions, which form a shell around it.
It was already known that this system can produce regular arrays of dust called plasma crystals, and some experiments have also shown hints of spiral structures. Now, Morfill's simulation suggests that the dust should sometimes form double helixes.
Like DNA, the dust spirals can store information. They do so in the scaffolding of their bodies, as they have two stable states – one with a large diameter and the other with a small one – so a spiral could carry a series of wide and narrow sections.
The specific order of these sections can be copied from one dust spiral to another, like a genetic code. The researchers aren't sure how it happens, but they think each narrow section of spiral creates a permanent vortex of moving dust outside it. So if another spiral drifts alongside it, that vortex pinches the same length into its narrow state.
The spirals even feed, in a sense, as they need fresh plasma to survive and grow, suggesting they may compete with one another for food. Since they are also capable of passing on their genetic code, then perhaps they could evolve into more complex structures.
But that is very speculative, says Morfill, explaining that the simulation is far too simple to include such complex processes as evolution. "It has a lot of the hallmarks for how we define life at present, but we have not simulated life," Morfill told New Scientist. "To us, they're just a special form of plasma crystal."
Alive or not, these dust structures could exist in nature. There are many places in space where small grains of material are immersed in a plasma.
"In our solar system, the places most likely to have the right conditions are planetary rings, especially the rings of Saturn and Uranus," says Morfill. There the "dust" would actually be fine ice grains, and the nourishing plasma would be supplied by the solar wind, channelled by planetary magnetic fields.
For any ice-grain creatures roaming the rings of Saturn, the pace of life would be leisurely, because plasma-crystal processes run more than a hundred thousand times more slowly than the biochemistry of Earth. So even if they are alive, there's no need to worry about them possessing malign alien intelligence. They probably won't have had time to evolve very far.
[See what (these) people say...]